Two out of three ain’t bad.
In my game preview, I listed three things I thought the Pittsburgh Steelers absolutely had to do in order to defeat the New England Patriots. To be honest, I didn’t think they’d actually do any of them. Well, fool me once, shame on me. Fool me twice, thy name is Bill Belichick.
The Steelers completely overhauled their usual game plan on both sides of the ball yesterday. The result was a convincing 25-17 victory over the hated Patriots. It was, by any measure, the team’s most impressive performance of 2011. If the Black and Gold goes on a run which culminates in another trip up the Stairway to Seven, we’re undoubtedly going to look back at week eight as the turning point in the season.
Longtime Steeler fans will remember an infamous Monday Night game many years back when the Patriots came out throwing on something like twenty consecutive plays. Yesterday, the Steelers gave them a taste of their own medicine. Ben Roethlisberger threw the ball 32 times. In the first half.
Ben would finish the afternoon 36/50 for 365 yards and 2 TDs. He came out firing and never let up, even when it would have been prudent to do so. I’ve been a Steeler fan for a pretty long time. While I’m not exactly reaching for Touch of Grey, I remember seeing John Stallworth catch passes from Mark Malone. I’ve never seen a better performance by a Steeler signal caller than the one Ben put forth yesterday.
Let’s also give it up for Young Money, the name adopted by the Steelers’ trio of fantastic young receivers. Mike Wallace, perhaps hampered by his sore hamstring, didn’t catch any home runs but was still productive to the tune of 7 catches for 70 yards. Manny Sanders, who has been coming on in recent weeks, caught 5 balls for another 70 yards. But it was Antonio Brown who had the biggest afternoon, catching 9 passes for 67 yards and a TD. At least two and sometimes all three were in on almost every pass play and somebody would get open every single time.
We also can’t forget Heath Miller, who absolutely torched the Patriots in the first quarter, catching six of his seven passes on the first two drives. The offensive line started the same combination two weeks in a row for the first time this season only to see RT Marcus Gilbert leave with an ankle injury. They surrendered five sacks but two of them were on the final drive where the Steelers all but flashed “We’re Going To Throw!” on the scoreboard. Otherwise, three sacks on 50 pass attempts isn’t bad at all. Really, only two things kept this game from being an absolute blow-out.
The first goes back to my opening “two out of three” comment. While the Steelers moved the ball between the 20s with minimal resistance, their failure to finish off drives stuck them with two Shaun Suisham field goals and a Miss of The Week. Much of their poor play in the Red Zone can be attributed to the fact they still can’t run the ball worth a damn, especially in short yardage. That’s why with five minutes left and facing a pivotal 3rd and 3 from deep in New England territory, Bruce Arians called a bomb into the end zone instead of a run up the gut.
The second was a boneheaded pick by Big Ben where he threw late over the middle into a sea of blue and white. Starting at the Steelers’ 8, the Pats got what amounted to a free score. Otherwise, the Steelers D played about as fine a game as you’ll ever see. Especially when you consider it was against Tom Brady and the vaunted Patriots offense.
I must tip my hat once again to the master, Dick LeBeau. He threw things at Brady that had him more confused than the first time Giselle painted his toenails. The Steelers started with their regular base defense but quickly abandoned it in favor of a 3-2-6 set-up. Not only did he add extra DBs, he had them play an aggressive man-on-man press coverage which I’ve never seen the Steelers do for almost four entire quarters. Face Me Ike, Ryan Mundy, Ryan Clark, Kennan Lewis, Troy Polamalu (who was more fired up than I’ve seen him in quite awhile) and, yes, Will.i.am Gay combined to do a fantastic job on whichever receiver they happened to be matched up with. Rookie Cortez Allen, who had a great pre-season, was even pressed into service and made a couple nice plays in the second half.
Of course, the secondary was aided by LaMarr Woodley going full-on BEAST MODE once again. Mister Woodley had two more sacks and easily could have had several more if not for Brady flinging the ball away while squealing in terror whenever he caught sight of him. Sadly, Woodman pulled up lame with a bad hammy (gee, wonder if the lockout has anything to do with that?) in the third quarter and Blitzburgh’s pass rush disappeared right along with him. Before he left, the D completely stymied the Patriots with a combination of pressuring the QB and stifling man-to-man coverage on the receivers.
Bruce Arians deserves all the credit in the world for unleashing the Flying Circus upon a hapless New England secondary. Dick LeBeau deserves all the credit in the world for shifting his game plan from bend-but-don’t-break to attack-pressure-attack. But more to the point, the players deserve the credit for executing the game plan to near perfection. I realize you can’t use the same strategy every week but I truly think the Steelers have finally found an identity.
And all they had to do was out-Patriot the Patriots.